Holiday Travel Tips

In addition to the usual stresses of the holidays comes the added load of traffic woes. This boost in gridlock hits right when the days are their shortest and the weather its unfriendliest. To avoid the pitfalls and potholes of holiday driving, consider these handy tips.

Plan ahead to avoid a bumpy road. Allow extra time in a travel schedule. Bad traffic can often be avoided with a little preparation. The heaviest travel days are usually before and after Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Consider taking an extra day off so that you aren't stuck in the pack. Also, try to minimize holiday stress by getting the bulk of your shopping done well before the holiday.

Make sure cars are well-equipped for travel. Breaking down in the dark, in bad weather or in the cold can crush the holiday spirit. It's a good idea to take the car in for a winter "check-up." A mechanic can inspect the antifreeze, battery, windshield wipers and other cold-weather components. Make sure that the tire pressure is at the recommended levels, as tires can be hazardous in wet weather when they are not filled to proper levels.

Think before you drive. Leon James, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and an expert on driver psychology, reminds us that the highways are a community. As much as we may want to think we are isolated in our steel and glass bubbles, driving is really a social interaction without words. To understand holiday driving conditions, think of the way people act outside of their cars in this time of year. Many are worried, preoccupied, hurried, distracted and all those states of mind that make them easily agitated and less careful. On the road, this means that everyone should be more vigilant than usual, give people more distance and be forgiving when someone does something rash or absent-minded. Avoid confrontations, and try not to let other drivers bring you out of the happy holiday zone.

Ease on down the road.Don't think of driving as a chore. Consider traveling to be part of the vacation. Rather than getting cranky from thinking that you are losing vacation time, try to find ways to enjoy the time you spend driving. This might include playing favorite holiday music or pre-recorded holiday "talking books," singing holiday carols or chatting with passengers as if sitting on the couch back at home.

Carry equipment for on-the-road emergencies. If traveling in bad weather or in snow country, prepare for problems by packing flares, blankets, a first-aid kit, flashlight, water and snacks. It's useful to have a shovel to dig out the wheels in case you get stuck, and a bag of kitty litter to pour under the wheels for traction. Also remember to pack the cell phone for emergencies, but be prudent about using it while driving in holiday traffic or in bad weather.

Pack tire chains if you heading into the snow, and consider putting them on before leaving home.

Drive responsibly. Once you get on the road, drive slowly and carefully. It's the time of year when to-do lists can run long and we all have places where we would much rather be than on the road, but a defensive approach pays off in the long run.

Don't drink and drive. Be aware of your physical and legal limits and the potential dangers of intoxicated driving.

Take it public. The rates for renting a car at the airport have more than doubled over the past year because rental lot inventories have decreased dramatically. True, renting at the airport is convenient, but it's just not worth it anymore. Unless you really need a car, take public transportation, hop a cab, or beg a friend to pick you up at the airport instead.

Flying? Get your bags on the plane pronto. Fliers don't want to pay fees for checked bags, and more and more of them are traveling with just carry-ons. The amount of space in overhead bins on planes, meanwhile, has remained the same. To nab a spot for your carry-on near your seat, get on the plane ASAP and be ready to store it right away.

Google it. Worried about a flight delay because of stormy weather? Type your airline's name and your flight number into a Google search bar. The site will fetch up-to-date flight status info.

Airport: Get to the airport an extra half-hour early. The check-in and security lines are filled with inexperienced fliers, and it's a slog. Plus, if you decide to cut it close you may not get onto the flight at all. To reduce costs, airlines have dramatically scaled back on flights and routes. The remaining flights are more likely to be oversold, especially on busy travel days. Fliers who check in early are the least likely to get bumped from oversold flights.